Jails & Prisons Have a Serious Drug Problem
That much almost goes without saying, right? Thanks to popular shows like The Wire, Lockup , and Oz, we know that drugs and alcohol are plentiful in prison.
What we may not have known though, or what I certainly didn’t know, was the true extent of this problem. According to new research, 50% of female former prisoners’ deaths are directly linked to drugs.
Give that a moment to sink in. Half of all women released from prison will die due to a drug related cause. That seems out of control.
This new research comes to us from Professor Seena Fazel, a Professor of Forensic Psychiatry at the University of Oxford. It was published in the journal The Lancet Psychiatry this past April.
Keep reading to learn why drug related deaths are so prevalent among former prisoners and what can be done to help them!
Shocking Statistics on Drug Deaths
I mentioned above how popular television can shape our perceptions of jail and prison. Well, it isn’t only the media. According to Professor Fazel and his team, there have been studies conducted in the past which confirm the pervasiveness of substance abuse and mental illness in prisons.
It looks like these past studies didn’t reveal the full extent of the problem though. Fazel and his team examined the records of over 45,000 former prisoners in Sweden. They studied nine years worth of data from 2000 to 2009.
What Fazel and his researchers found is shocking. Taking into account various nondrug related factors (the nature of prisoners’ crimes, socio-demographic factors, and genetics), the team concluded that 34% of deaths among former male prisoners and 50% of deaths among former female prisoners were caused by drugs and alcohol.
I’ll repeat that once more because, frankly, I find it hard to believe. 34% of all men released from prison died because of substance abuse. As if that wasn’t enough, half of all women released from prison died because of substance abuse.
Those numbers don’t reflect a problem. They don’t even reflect an epidemic. They reflect an all out slaughter.
Professor Fazel and his researchers also concluded that among deaths from external causes (i.e. not from disease), drugs and alcohol accounted for 43% of former male prisoners’ deaths and 70% of former female prisoners’ deaths.
What the hell is going on?
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Let’s Offer Treatment Instead of Jail
Approximately 9% of former US prisoners’ deaths due to external causes could be prevented if treatment was offered in jail or instead of jail.
In fact, Professor Fazel and his team write,
“In many countries, jails and prisons are an important opportunity to treat substance use disorders in individuals who are out of the reach of conventional health care systems… Such efforts could not only reduce mortality in people released from custody, but also improve both public health and safety” (Medical News Today).
Sounds fair enough, right? If someone is seriously addicted to drugs and doesn’t have the resources to pursue private or state funded treatment, surely they can rely on treatment once they crash and burn, metaphorically speaking, into a jail cell.
The only problem with this idea is that the United States criminal justice system doesn’t offer much in the way of substance abuse treatment. 0.8% of those in state prisons receive detox, 0.3% receive medication-assisted therapies, 6.5% receive counseling, and 9.5% receive residential treatment.
Those are small numbers, especially when you consider that there are around 332,000 individuals in jail or prison for drug related crimes. Yeah, those treatment numbers could stand to be a bit higher.
What can we do to offer help to those prisoners who need it? Well, the first step is to increase federal and state spending on prison treatment centers. This is a monumental first step and likely won’t happen anytime soon. Until there’s more money available to fight the problem, though, nothing will change.
Once the money is there, prisons should offer a separate program for all drug related offenses. Similar to how drug courts work in tandem to traditional courts, prison and jail rehabs could work parallel to traditional facilities.
Maybe then half of all women released from prison wouldn’t die from a drug related cause.